I collect old Quaker documents. I’m always interested in how Quakers responded corporately to the challenges they faced in their own time and place, so I’m always interested in Disciplines, books of Faith and Practice, Committee reports and guidelines, old Minutes, and the endless minutiae of the Society. We Friends tend to write a lot, so there’s lots of text to scrutinize for insight into how the Society felt and acted about issues of concern in their time and place.
My interest extends into the present, too, in looking over current procedures and guidelines, both from my own Meeting and those from others around the country and the world. Sometimes there are insights that can be gained into our own problems by looking at how others have dealt with those of their own. Sometimes there are red flags, too, when I discover something going wrong, something that might not be apparent to the Friends so close to it that they can’t see it clearly.
I came across one such example the other day, in looking over a recent description of the tasks assigned to the “Welcoming Committee” of an active urban Meeting here in the United States. The description was several pages long, and contained practical information such as how to unlock the heavy doors, setting out the guest book, providing name tags and markers for newcomers, and re-stocking the pamphlet titled “You and Your Children Are Welcome.”
And here is where I discovered the red flag. This Meeting is in a big city, with the usual big-city problem of homeless people wandering the streets at night looking for shelter. Five paragraphs cover how to welcome strangers at the door, introducing them to the Society, explaining what is going on, making sure they have the right pamphlets, checking the street for latecomers, and so on. Very comprehensive and hospitable. But just before them comes the single paragraph about sending the poor people away:
If there are homeless people sleeping or camping in front of the building, this would be a good time to gently ask them to go elsewhere. I like to tell them about [a Roman Catholic Church] as a place to sleep or [another Roman Catholic Church] for food etcetera.
And a little further along, another guideline:
Occasionally homeless people will wander into the lobby during Meeting. You will need to handle these situations as well.
“Go elsewhere?” “Situations?” I know the problems of dealing with poor people in urban areas from personal experience. I’ve given away my food (and my spare shoes) to homeless people in Columbus for years, because sometimes they have no food, and sometimes they have no shoes. In the winter I reach into my pocket and give them extra money to help get them into a rooming house for the night, because sleeping behind a dumpster in the Ohio snow is a short ticket to death. I am under no illusions that I can solve all the problems, so I concentrate on who God puts in front of me, that day, and I do what I can. I can’t always help, but these are children of God--I never make a blanket policy of sending them away.
The origins of the Religious Society of Friends were among social misfits, ostracized people, often rendered poverty-stricken by circumstances of faith. And the origins of Christianity itself were among the slaves, beggars, servants, widows, and orphans of the totalitarian Roman Empire. Money and food was regularly allocated by the Christians for the local paupers, and disparity in sharing food between richer and poorer people at the agape meal led to a stern admonition in one of Paul’s letters. But here, in modern America, a Friends Meeting sends poor people away to Roman Catholic Churches, which apparently are more interested in them. What in the world is going on here, to have a Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends make a written policy of sending beggars away, without even a question, and to another church, at that?
What message does our Society have for these poor people, sleeping in doorways?
I’m not interested in identifying this Meeting. Like many others, this one maintains a vocal position in opposing world oppression and injustice. On its website for this month, its Advices and Queries highlight “Social and Civic Responsibility.” But most of the wording is focused far away, and addresses governments, communities, nations, the world-- large groups, humanity as an abstraction. And most of the means for solving problems seem to be committee work, civil disobedience, mass social advocacy, promotion of group change, the seeking of just laws. What is missing here is personal responsibility, the traditional concern of the Friend to turn his eyes from the bleeding world, to attend to the bleeding friend asleep on the Meeting House steps.
It was Jesus Christ himself who said, “For ye have the poor with you always,” and truer words have never been spoken. There will always be beggars sleeping in doorways, but rather than sending them away, would the Son of God perhaps have suggested another response? Jesus took the beggars, the tax collectors, the crazy people, and the sinners, and singled them out for special attention. He spoke with them, touched them, fed them, and treated them as people for whom he had a message of great importance. What lessons did he teach? Who hears them today?
Urban paupers are sometimes dirty, smelly, foul-mouthed, and ungrateful, and occasionally are drunk and mentally disturbed. But there are other ways of remaining faithful to the greater testimony of answering that of God in everyone than “gently asking them to go elsewhere.” For instance:
- Assign a Friend to invite the beggars inside to learn that the Society of Friends has a message of interest to their spiritual growth. If they are disruptive, then ask them to go elsewhere, not while their only offense is choosing the wrong steps to sleep on.
- Make up a dozen or two small bags of food—a doughnut and a box of orange juice. Hand them to as many beggars as are willing to eat quietly in a back room, while meeting is going on, or let them eat on the steps.
- Assign the Welcoming Committee the weekly task of Welcoming the Beggars to the Society of Friends, each Friend to spend one hour per month, or per year, sitting out on the steps with them during meeting, learning who they are and hearing the messages Jesus Christ might be sending with them to the worshippers inside.
- Hold an all-night vigil on the Meeting House steps with them, to learn about tragedy and injustice close to home, and what to do about it.
- Occasionally cancel the regular “No Injustice in Far-Away Places” demonstration to allow time for a “No Hunger on the Meeting House Steps” demonstration to take place instead.
And so on. None of these things will make the homeless people go away, or solve all their problems, or make them smell better or speak more quietly. And yet, isn’t it a fundamental testimony of the Religious Society of Friends that all people are equal in the sight of God, and that our responsibility on this earth is to help our brothers and sisters, right here, right now, successfully or not, dirty or not? When we “gently ask the homeless people to go elsewhere,” what are we telling them about what we believe? What are we telling the Roman Catholics who feed and house the beggars that we send away? What do we tell ourselves when we look into a mirror that evening, about our own faithfulness to that of God in everyone? And what do we tell our God about how we live up to our measure of the Light he has given us?